Dorinda Duncan was 20 when she recorded these songs—a ‘southern belle’ according to the liner notes. She covers, somewhat tiresomely, the same Dylan songs as everyone else, although her focus is entirely on the love songs. What was it with 1965 anyway? There were no less than six Dylan cover albums released that year. Apparently 1965 was the year of the folk rock boom.
Listening to Duncan has made me realize just how atrocious Linda Mason’s singing really is. Dorinda Duncan can sing—she has a strong, clear, confident voice, and she is able to use it to modulate, to adapt her voice to the lyrics and be flexible with phrasing. Ostensibly she’s a folk singer, but there’s a little bit of country in there, a little bit of jazz chanteuse (just a touch) and not a lot of rock’n’roll (read: none). If I thought Linda Mason sounded too ‘nice’ to sing Dylan’s songs, Dorinda Duncan turns Dylan into the Sound of Music. This is Julie Andrews surrounded by children, flowers, meadows and butterflies. So, yup, Duncan can sing well. If this was American Idol, you could easily imagine all three judges proclaiming a unified “You’re goin’ to Hollywood baby!”
The sleeve-note writer may disagree with me – (“Youth must be served and it certainly is by Dorinda Duncan”) – but as far as I can tell this is Dylan-for-Grandmas. It’s the most wretchedly sweetened version of Dylan I’ve heard. But, credit where it’s due, Duncan doesn’t quite destroy the songs. She is listenable. Only once or twice does she let her voice rip into a horrid soprano but at least she doesn’t try to take on songs that don’t suit her voice and image, such as “Masters of War” or “A Hard Rain…” Further, she sings the lyrics in her own unique way, never trying to copy Dylan’s phrasings. It’s just weird how the 60s mainstream was so determined to find ways of making Dylan safe for those who would otherwise never listen to him. On the other hand it suggests the sheer universality of his lyrics that his songs could be projected in so many different directions.
The rhythm instrumentation on these tracks is kept to bare basics, a light beat, a strum here and there. Mostly the music is carried along on a jaunty flute. Right-e-ho then, must be time to spin the black circle.
Bob Dylan’s Dream… opens with woodwind over a light clippity clop pony-rhythm. Duncan sustains the notes with a vibrating warble. She sings in a simple style but she really gets her voice-tones into the meaning between the words to the point where she makes the song her own. Also good to hear her at least begin with a track no one else has yet covered.
Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right… makes me realise deep down this must be one of my favourite Dylan songs. It doesn’t matter who covers it—I like it. Duncan sings it really well—she’s got this great way of lowering her voice in crucial spots to create intimacy, which gives the effect that the words are her own. That’s an admirable touch.
Boots Of Spanish Leather… is sung with far too much soprano for my tastes. It adds a sentimentality to the words that pushes them into sappy territory. It doesn’t sound like Duncan is singing all the original words on these tracks. Nothing here is over three minutes long.
It Ain’t Me Babe… proves that she’s mainly aiming for the love songs. The backing music is offensively inoffensive. Always a lone woodwind tooting away like a bird in the forest. “Someone who will die for you and more” – exemplifies a line where she needlessly pushes her voice into a loftily sentimental register.
Mr. Tambourine Man… shows that where Odetta’s version is far too long, Duncan’s is far too short. She cuts off at least half the lyrics in order to keep this down to radio-friendly length. She does sing it in the right kind of tone, which is to say, she keeps with the feeling of the song—er, a whimsical nostalgic merry sleeplessness?
Girl From The North Country… is another one that I’ll find something to like about in even the worst of cover versions. Duncan does a great job of this, even if she does pierce my eardrums every now and then with that high pitch. This is what I meant by ‘jazzy’ – she has a great ability to let her voice ‘float’ with the rhythm, forcing the music to fit her voice, rather than the other way round.
When The Ship Comes In… again highlights Duncan’s incredibly natural tones. I’m quite astounded at how well she makes the words suit her voice. Ostensibly a revenge song, but Duncan really mines the truer tragedy behind the song—there is emotion here. I just wish she’d not cut off any of the lyrics. By doing so she’s willfully undermining the true power of the song. I’ve always loved that line, “And the sun will respect / Every face on the deck / The hour that the ship comes in.”
Farewell (sic)… is the written-but-not-recorded-by-Dylan number I’m starting to get pretty familiar with just from hearing it covered so often. This is another love song, and I guess her selections resonate with the title of the album – “Through the heart of a girl.” She’s clearly handpicked Dylan’s more popular love songs. This is a parting song; “It’s not the leaving that’s grieving me / But my own true love who’s bound to stay behind.” Not sure about that flute though. Would’ve been good if they’d used different instruments. But then that would undermine the simplicity of these versions, and that’s their strength I think. (The full title here should be ‘Restless Farewell’).
The Times They Are A-Changin’… I remember hating the way Linda Mason sang words like ‘changin’ in a clipped precise way, but Duncan manages to make it sound natural. Her voice is warmer, softer on the edges of consonants, curling itself around the words like a vine. That flute though, starting to grate.
Tomorrow Is A Long Time… another love song with lyrics that have never really sounded original much. One of those that Dylan ‘appropriated’ no doubt. This is a little bit Muppet show. I can just picture a row of cute handpuppets with googly eyes swaying from side to side as Dorinda wanders around patting each one on the head until the song gets cut off midway by a jealous Miss Piggy.
Blowin’ In The Wind… hm, perhaps begrudgingly I’ll concede this is probably the best cover I’ve heard of this yet. It reminds me of primary school, 1974. I’m sure we had a few hippy-era teachers at our school who made us sing this. Yes, it was Miss Mead, I remember now, who had us sing this while she strummed an acoustic guitar.
One Too Many Mornings…wow, she almost slurs on this one, but in quite a cool way, a Hope Sandoval kind of way. Her voice is more mellow and sultry here. I even like the unusual melody being played by the flute on this one.
This is a fairly begrudging review. I think I’ve learned something here. When somebody can sing, like really sing, in a natural voice without sounding like they’re even trying, and make you almost forget the songs were written by someone else, then you can’t knock ‘em down. They lay waste to your cynicism as they transform the song. I think that’s the most you can ask of any cover version – the songs of someone as pointedly individualistic as Dylan can never really be transcended but they can be transformed. Where Duane Eddy, Linda Mason and the Golden Gate Strings try but fail to transform Dylan, Dorinda Duncan, Odetta and Hugues Aufray somehow manage it.
From Dorinda Duncan’s personal website: Dorinda wrote her first song at the age of 14, when her parents bought her a baritone ukulele for Christmas. She sang throughout junior high and high school in choirs, and that strict direction and clean chordal structure shaped her musical tastes for the rest of her life. While living near Miami, Florida, she auditioned for a folk singing group, The Briarwood Singers, and toured the east coast as the only female lead in a 5-piece vocal group of tight harmonies and strong instrumentals. They supported the Beatles on their first US tour. She then cut her debut album, The Songs Of Bob Dylan Through The Heart Of A Girl